Abstention is a word which is used in several different legal senses. This word means “to refrain,” as for example when someone might claim to be abstaining from alcohol, meaning that this person is not drinking alcohol. In a legal sense, abstention can involve withholding a vote, refraining from a particular activity, or refusing to have an opinion on a legal matter. Many governments have procedures in place to allow people to formally abstain.
In elections, people may choose to abstain from voting because they do not like the choices or they wish to challenge the validity of the election. Staying at home on election day is a form of abstention but people who would like to formally record their protest can choose to go to the polls and cast a blank ballot. Also known as a blank vote or white ballot, the ballot is considered spoiled by the elections personnel, but will be counted along with other ballots. People may refer to this type of abstention as “making a protest vote.”
In parliamentary procedure, people who are present for a vote can vote aye, nay, or abstain. People may opt for abstention if they have a conflict of interest which they believe precludes them from voting. An abstention can also be recorded as a form of protest. For example, a legislator who is opposed to a piece of legislature might abstain or vote “present,” depending on the procedures in the legislature, to mark discontent with the way in which the legislation was handled.
Courts can also engage in abstention. If a court feels that it cannot rule on a matter before it, it may abstain. This is usually done when a court wishes to refer a matter to another court. The abstaining court must usually provide a reason for the fact that it is declining to give a ruling. In cases where judges believe that there is a conflict of interest, they are obligated to recuse themselves from the bench and the court selects another judge to hear the case.
It is generally recognized that people should be allowed to choose abstention as an option, rather than being compelled to vote for or against something or to vote from a group of choices which they feel are all poor. Abstention is also an important mechanism for allowing people who have conflicts of interest or biases to excuse themselves from a vote.